Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Special report: Danger in the skies

If you want to live, don't fly on regional airlines.

Regrettably, that's the only reasonable conclusion I can draw after further analysis of the Colgan crash in Buffalo, an interview with a fellow pilot and a Squawking VFR study of National Transportation Safety Board aviation accident records.

I'm not trying to casually dump on a sector of the aviation industry that people love to kick around. But facts are facts.

Through inexperience, incompetence and gross negligence, regional airlines are consistently putting passengers in harm's way at a rate that exceeds their mainline counterparts.

And when accidents arise, the regional officials are happy to point the finger elsewhere, creating a culture that elicits defensive reactions and cover-ups instead of one that learns from mistakes and offers reform.

Along those lines, there's a ton to analyze and write about after last week's release of the cockpit voice recordings in the Colgan crash -- beyond the territory I've already covered in previous posts.

I'm going to save that for another day.

For now, I'm going to more broadly focus on the regionals. I don't want these statistics that I've unearthed to be missed amid the Buffalo rubble. They deserve their own post in the first-ever special report here.

These results are astounding. I never would have guessed the difference between the mainliners and regionals was so great until I bothered to see myself.

Discounting terrorism-related crashes, I've researched all NTSB scheduled-passenger aviation accident reports since 1995 to the present, looking at accidents that involved U.S.-registered aircraft operating on or above U.S. soil.

Here's what I found:

* Eight consecutive fatal accidents have involved regional airliners. Six of the eight, which have all occurred since May 21, 2000, were caused by pilot error, according to the NTSB.

* Ten of the past 12 fatal crashes have involved regional airliners.

* Mainliners have recorded their safest decade on record. The last fatal mainline crash came on Jan. 31, 2000, when an Alaska Air flight crashed into the Pacific Ocean due to mechanical problems.

* Unlike their mainline counterparts, regional accidents tend to be fatal. Eleven of the 12 regional crashes since 1995 have been fatal. Five of the 16 mainline crashes in the same timeframe resulted in fatalities.

* The disparity is even greater when you look at survivability. Occupants are more than four times as likely to die in a regional accident than they are a mainline accident.

Look at the number of fatalities per accident below versus the total number of occupants on board for regional airlines:

Date Airline Location Fatal/Total occupants
08/21/95 Atl. Southest Georgia 8/29
11/19/96 Great Lakes Quincy, Ill. 12/12
01/09/97 Comair Ida, Mich. 29/29
01/23/99 Colgan Hyannis, Mass. 0/4
05/21/00 Executive Air Scranton, Pa. 19/19
01/08/03 Air Midwest Charlotte, N.C. 21/21
08/26/03 Colgan Hyannis, Mass. 2/2
10/14/04 Pinnacle Jefferson City, Mo. 2/2
10/19/04 Corporate Air Kirksville, Mo. 13/15
12/19/05 Chalk Airways Miami, Fla. 20/20
08/27/06 Comair Lexington, Ky. 49/50
02/12/09 Colgan Buffalo, N.Y. 50/50

By my count, regional accidents have killed 212 of 238 possible passengers in these accidents, an 89.1 percent kill rate.

I'd venture to think that, as I did, most readers assume that aviation accidents tend to be fatal, that an 89.1 percent kill rate would be par for the course. But the statistics do not bear that out.

Not at all.

By contrast, accidents involving the mainline airlines, or "legacy" airlines if you prefer, are statistically much safer and much more survivable.

06/08/95 Valu-Jet Atlanta 0/62
12/20/95 Tower Air JFK 0/468
02/19/96 Continental Houston 0/87
05/11/96 Valu-Jet Everglades 110/110
07/06/96 Delta Pensacola, Fla. 2/146
07/17/96 TWA Long Island, N.Y.230/230
10/19/96 Delta LaGuardia 0/63
02/09/98 American Chicago O'Hare 0/121
11/01/98 AirTran Atlanta 0/105
06/01/99 American Little Rock 12/143
09/09/99 TWA Nashville 0/48
01/31/00 Alaska Point Mugu, Ca. 88/88
03/05/00 Southwest Burbank, Ca. 0/142
12/08/05 Southwest Chicago Midway 0/103
12/20/09 Continental Denver 0/112
01/15/09 US Airways Hudson River 0/155

Mainline accidents have killed 442 of 2,183 occupants in accidents, a 20.2 percent kill rate, and that's assuming you believe that TWA Flight 800 disintegrated over Long Island Sound because of a random spark in the center fuel tank.

(If you think I am counting aviation incidents in an attempt to bolster my numbers, I will state that I am counting only accidents, not incidents, as classified by the NTSB. There's a difference in the government's definition between the two. Accidents are generally more severe and involve structural damage).

How to explain the huge gap in numbers, in terms of frequency of accidents and survivability of them?

A friend of mine who works as a professional pilot, who came up through the regional ranks and now works at a mainline airline, describes significant diffences in not just the experience level of the pilots, but a difference in culture.

"I think professionalism, not rushing the checklist for the game of it, because it's cool to spit it out quickly, excessive talking, experience levels on a situation, are all so very different between the two."

"Checklists were a game for many at XXXXXX Airlines."

"The difference between the two were so big, and unfortunately, the more I know, teh less I want my family or me on the lesser regionals. Can't imagine flying on Great Lakes anymore."

If a seasoned pilot is worried about putting his family on a regional airline, so should you.

What's irksome is that, although it's printed in small type on a passenger ticket, most members of the flying public don't even realize they're purchasing a ticket on a Colgan or a Pinnacle.

They just know they're on Continental, and a plane painted with a Continental Express logo is waiting for them at the gate, ready to take them to Buffalo.

What they don't know, as seen in the stats above, can kill them.

The flying public deserves to know about the gaping differences between mainliners and regionals.

They deserve more than the blame-the-pilot responses they get from Colgan and others when things go wrong -- an injustice that will be looked at further in a future post.

Bottom line, they deserve a full investigation into the training practices and general culture at regional airlines, which sprouted largely when the industry was de-regulated in the 1980s.

The public deserves answers, and then reform.